The Story: A lot of beloved stories don't really hold up to a second reading. A lot of stories that didn't go over so well read a lot better after a second reading. Spike: After the Fall definitely changes with repeated reads, but doesn't fall into either of those categories. It was fantastic when I first read it, but the more I read the more the utter greatness of it starts to stand out.
Getting the flaws out of the way first, Art Lyon's coloring doesn't really vibe with Franco Urru's art. It's not really appropriate, I feel, for the tone of either Spike or Angel, but at least his coloring work on this book was an improvement over his work on the middle issues of Angel. The art is best in the third issue, in which Jason Jensen's beautiful coloring leaps off the page, but Urru's art is as good as ever, so it is still able to shine even with less than ideal color work. He is wonderful with character likeness and even better with movement. Take the page in #2, where Spike and Spider have a bit of a stand-off. Perfect pencils, perfect layout. What an example of how effective visual story-telling in comics can be.
As for the story, it's a prequel that truly stands on its own. It tells what happened to Spike and Illyria between First Night and the main arc of After the Fall, so we know where they start and where they end up... but getting there is all the shocking, tragic, bloody fun. Spike's dialogue is the strongest it's ever been, allowing us to get close--but not too close--to our vampire champion. Brian Lynch subtly, gracefully crafts the relationships between the three leads, Spike, Illyria, and Jeremy, setting us up for heartbreak that we knew had to come but could have never predicted how. Brian described the story as having an "indie" or "low budget" feel, and he's right in that the tone is a lot closer to the television series than the Angel title, but this just makes it a more interesting read instead of limiting it. It's a fast paced, highly emotional tale with great character development, cool connections to the Angel title, fantastic dialogue, and Brian's best original villain. Well, at least tied with Kr'ph.
Spike's story reads even better in the context of the entire Angel: After the Fall arc. Both of them play off each other so well, elevating both stories to a new level. I loved Spike: After the Fall when it was released in four parts, and I looked forward to the book every month... but it's nothing compared to how the story reads now. Knowing what is to come for Spike, knowing how Angel: After the Fall is resolved, reading the story is a nearly perfect experience. Things that didn't seem to matter much before--such as Gunn being interested that Illyria was with Non--are now vital in the light of the final few issues of Angel: After the Fall. Jeremy's entire arc, knowing what will become of Illyria... it all works so well with the book. Also, the story is so tight, so many little moments pop up and are payed off, that this is really the only form that can do the book justice. Even the little things--like the way Spike tells time in #1 vs. the way Connor does in #4--contribute to the tight feeling of Spike: After the Fall. I've seen a lot of people say it's the best installment in Brian's Spike trilogy of Asylum, Shadow Puppets, and this, and I always thought Asylum was slightly better. Now, I think they're at least equal.
Brian ended his commentary by saying this: "Spike's grown a lot throughout the TV shows, hasn't he? Just thinking about all the changed Whedon and company put him through on the TV shows, it's pretty mind-boggling. He's a wonderfully rich and complicated character, and hopefully Franco and I did him justice."
I'll end my review by saying this: Spike is among the most well-developed characters in the Buffyverse, going from pitiful poet to feared killer to a monster trying to go against his nature to a true champion. Brian and Franco took that character to the next level. In their Spike trilogy, they forever changed the character, reminding us how deep and complex he can be, something that might have been glossed over in the business of Angel: Season Five (which isn't an issue, I don't think). They've added at least a season's worth of development to the character, taking him in brand new and excitingly dark directions, and I can't wait to see what they bring to him with the on-going Spike series. No one writes our favorite blond vampire better.
The Presentation: Tony Harris's cover from Angel: After the Fall #2 was used, which I found odd at first. But it's really a beautiful book, and once you lay it next to the hardcovers Angel volumes, you understand. The painted look of the cover really vibes well with the other books. Other than the golden tint (which does make it hard to read the embossed title and credits), there isn't much different than the look of the other hardcovers. The images chosen for the chapter headings were very nice.
Special Features: Not much in this volume, which is understandable, considering both Brian and Franco were finishing up work on Angel: After the Fall at this time. There are, however, extensive Franco Urru sketches, including a whole bunch of different perspectives of the Spike/Illyria kiss, as well as quick sketches of particularly important scenes. There's a nice "previously on" section set over an image of Spike sizing up Angel's dragon, as well as some commentary on the first issue. I do miss the in-depth commentary offered in Brian's first two Spike volumes, but when it comes down to it, I would definitely rather Brian and Franco have the time to make the actual comics the best they could be, so I'm good with the limited commentary. There is also a comprehensive cover gallery, featuring all of the Urru and Sharp Brothers covers.
Rating: 10/10 Classic.